Peter pulled his collar up and tucked in his scarf. Mist wove around him, squeezing in between the seams of his clothing.
The forest was deathly quiet and cool, silver tree trunks and soft fluttering leaves. He was used to walks in the bush — noise and heat, raucous birds, insects singing, the rough and rugged landscape, charcoal grey and drab olive leaves. He was far from home.
The walk from the train station was a pleasant change from planes and airport lounges. The antique book fair in Hamburg brought him near and there was always curiosity about his mother’s German roots.
He was only five when his baby sister died, and his mother had left — or been sent away — it was never clear. He remember ed whispered conversations, “Nervous breakdown…” He wasn’t sure what it meant, other than he never saw her again.
His father got rid of her things, including the book of Grimm’s fairy tales — his father took it away, as he cried in objection. His father wasn’t an angry man, but his sadness plumbed terrifying depths. That book reminded him of his mother more than anything. As her image faded, her could still hear her voice... Once upon a time...
Peter managed to hide one photograph of her. In it she is a young girl, long blonde braids, stooping slightly, frowning against the sun.
Her eyes were grey, like his.
A thicket of birch trees partially hid the cottage he was seeking. He was amused by its ginger coloured brick with white-trimmed windows and doors.
Peter knocked at the door, and was startled by the loud barking that erupted from inside.
He could hear a woman’s voice. “Ruhe, bitte — Fritz, sich beruhigen”.
As the door opened warmth rushed toward him, accompanied by the smell of cloves, pastry, and coffee. Peter eyed the elderly woman — regal and elegant, she was taller than he expected. Behind her stood a large black dog — pointed ears, long nose, sharp teeth.
“Guten Tag, Frau Muller,” attempted Peter in his hastily learnt German. Feeling awkward he abandoned the guttural tongue and continued his introduction in English. “Peter Andersen. We spoke on the phone.”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Andersen. Please come in out of the damp air. This is Fritz” indicating the dog. “He’s my champion, as they say in the days of chivalry.” Fritz snuffled Peter’s feet as he stepped over the threshold.
“I’m sorry to say I’m quite frightened of dogs.”
“Fritz is a good boy. He’ll lie down once you get settled. He may look like a wolf, but he is really a lamb. A sheep in wolf’s clothing, you could say.”
They made their way to the sitting room — it was lined with bookcases. A number of finely bound volumes were on a small table in the center of the room.
“I have selected these volumes for your appraisal, Mr. Andersen. For afterwards, I have made apple strudel.”
“That would be wonderful. Please, call me Peter.”
“What brings you to Germany? We’re a long way from Australia to come buying books.”
“I may have mentioned on the phone — I’ve been in Hamburg for a book fair. As it happens, my mother was born in Germany — somewhere in this region, I believe.”
“You have family here?”
“Not that I’m aware of — she left for Australia soon after the war — she was only fourteen, I think. She died when I was very young — she would be in her seventies now.”
“And your father?”
“Australian. He died a few years ago.”
“Ah, so you are an orphan — like me, no?” She smiled a charming smile and Peter could not help but smile back. “I have a number of Grimm’s for you to look at. Some old, some fine, some not so, but still of interest. I have a first edition from 1812, and also a copy of the seventh edition. I prefer the 1812 — to me it is more authentic.”
“Oh I agree, in many ways. Did you know the wicked step-mother was actually the mother in most of the folk stories they collected. They changed it. To the Brothers, a mother’s love was sacred.”
“So true Peter. There is nothing more wonderful — and nothing more terrible — than a mother’s love.”
Frau Muller went into the kitchen. When she returned, they talked, drank coffee, and ate strudel.
“I used to read these stories to my Kinder,” she said. “Cautionary tales about the life’s cruelties — how a mother might sacrifice everything to save even one child, if she could not save them all.”
As Peter opened one of the books, an old, faded photograph dropped to the floor. He picked it up and looked at the familiar image of a tall, young woman with long blonde plaits, holding an infant, a small frowning boy at her side, surrounded by eucalyptus trees. He turned the picture over to see written, “Inga, Peter and Greta — Kurrajong.”
“I always wanted to save you too, Peter.”
Peter looked up to meet the gaze of his hostess. She smiled through the tears in her grey eyes.
Karen Vernon lives in Australia with her partner and two dogs. She has a diverse and varied background, from Hansom Cab driver to masseur, theatre and film make-up, security dog handler, odour panellist, dark-room film processor, and sales assistant. She has spent many years working in the visual art world. Over the last year she has revived her passion for writing. You can find more of her original work at kvernonwriter.com
Ever After is a Fiction War Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @seemoris